There are certain rules that, for a long time, I believed applied to me as a writer. For example:
1) You’re a slow writer. A first draft takes you years to finish.
2) You need to handwrite your first drafts.
3) Outlining too much interferes with your creative process.
4) You need to revise as you go. This may make your first drafts come out more slowly (see number 1!), but it’s worth it because they’re cleaner in the end.
5) You’re not a write-every-day kind of person. Frequent, long breaks refuel your creativity.
If you’re a writer too, maybe some of these rules sound familiar. Maybe they’re even rules you believe apply to your own work.
Well, today I’m here to tell you that they’re not rules, but simply stories we tell ourselves. And, like all stories, they’re open to revision.
But why bother revising your system, Tara? you might ask. Clearly, the whole slow-draft/handwrite/bare-outline thing has worked for you in the past. It got you an agent, and a book deal. Why mess with success?
This is a good question, and to answer it, I need to tell you a little more about what writing my first two manuscripts was actually like.
My first novel (All Four Stars) took me more than five years to draft. Not write and revise and polish up, but DRAFT, from opening line to “The End.” And it’s no Game of Thrones-esque doorstopper of a book, but a typical 50,000-word middle-grade novel.
That’s a pace of 10,000 words (about 40 double-spaced pages) a year.
Yes, it worked for me the first time. But if I write all of my books at that pace, the kids who read and like my first book will be in college by the time my second comes out. That’s not exactly a sustainable pace if you’re trying to write a series and build a career as a children’s author.
I worked on my second book—a still-unfinished YA novel—for over a year. I estimate that it’s sitting at 70,000 words or so, but it’s hard to tell because most of it is handwritten in a notebook. Now, 70k in a year is a big improvement over 10k a year, but this book is currently in a drawer because I’m just not sure how to finish it. That outline that I was so afraid would mess with my process? Turns out it would’ve been really handy in the final stretch.
And let’s not even talk about anxiety. I like revising, but find writing first drafts—the whole can-I-make-it-as-good-on-the-page-as-it-is-in-my-head thing—to be pretty anxiety-provoking. My long, drawn-out process meant drawing out that anxiety, too, over months and years for each book. Fun!
For ages, though, I told myself that this was just “the way I wrote.” Like it was immutable, and could never be changed.
But I was wrong.
Let’s jump to this past summer, when—at my wits’ end with it—I decided to put the YA-with-no-ending aside for a while and work on something else. Luckily, just as I was deciding to do that, I got the call that my publisher would like me to write a sequel to All Four Stars. Yeehaw!
I had pitched a sequel to them a year before with a meager two-page outline, and the old Tara would have jumped right into drafting based on that. After all, “I’m a slow writer,” so there’s no time to waste with more outlining, right?
But this time around, I was determined to learn from my past mistakes. I did not let myself start that draft. Instead, I decided to put into practice a bunch of plotting and prewriting techniques that I had been reading about and bookmarking over the years. It would be my grand experiment to see if I could turn myself into a faster—and possibly better—drafter.
Here’s what I did.
Part 1: Prewriting
I started over at Robin LaFevers‘ website. Have you read her books? They’re incredible! Whatever this woman is doing, I thought, it’s got to be worth trying.
Robin has three blog posts about prewriting, and I busted out a fresh notebook and did the exercises she suggested in all of them.
The first set of questions focuses on your main character: What’s her deepest desire? What experiences have shaped her? You might think that, writing a sequel, I’d know my main character well enough to be able to skip over these questions, but no. In fact, I’d say that for a sequel, answering them is more important than ever, because you don’t want to just send your character on the same journey she took in book 1. Hopefully, book 1 brought about some changes in her life, which you can now build upon in book 2.
Robin’s second post explains how to build on character to develop plot, using internal and external goals, motivations, and conflicts. She explains it much better than I can, so I suggest you just click over and read her post on it.
And in the third post, you learn how to structure a scene-by-scene plot. Robin suggests using the structure laid out in the screenwriting book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, and I heartily second this suggestion.
Part 2: Outline and synopsis
Building off that last step, in which I filled in every “beat” of the Save the Cat beat sheet in a couple of pages in my notebook, I went a step farther. For every planned scene in the book, I wrote a sentence describing it on a sticky note, then arranged and reshuffled those notes into the Save the Cat three-act structure. (Snyder suggests using index cards and a bulletin board for this step; I used sticky notes and notebook pages. Same idea, but mine is more portable if you want to take your outline with you when you write outside of the house.)
Finally, working off my beat sheet and sticky-note outline, I wrote an incredibly detailed synopsis of what would happen in the book. It came out to be 12 double-spaced pages long. I needed to turn this new synopsis in to my editor, but even if I hadn’t, I’d suggest doing this step. It’ll help you fill in some details and blank spaces in your story, and also serves as a nice bridge between your minimalist outline and your first draft, which will need to be written in full sentences. 🙂
All of this preliminary work took me about a week. Occasionally, as I prewrote or outlined, I would get really inspired about one particular scene and end up writing a quick draft of it. I allowed myself to do this, but didn’t let myself get sucked too deeply into the story or mess around with the wording too much. The real drafting and revising would come later.
Part 3: Drafting
Finally, it was time to draft—and for once, I was feeling just as excited about getting started as I was feeling anxious. After all, I’d just spent a week thinking about this new story, and working out all the details, but not letting myself actually write it. So when the time finally came to start, I was chomping at the bit to dive in!
But what was going to stop me from dragging the process out over months or years? This combination of new directives kept me on track.
1) Set a deadline. My aunt was coming to visit for a week at the end of August, so I used her arrival date as a hard deadline. I wanted to have a 50,000-word draft done by that time, which gave me two months to knock it out.
2) Focus on speed. Like most people, I type much faster than I can write by hand. So for this project, I decided to throw my devotion to handwriting out the window and try typing it instead.
3) Embrace the awful. In her terrific book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott explains the concept of sh*tty first drafts. “All good writers write them,” she tells us. “This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”
I parroted this advice for many years, but as an inveterate tinkerer and revise-as-I-write-er, I never actually embraced it myself. I just couldn’t let that awful, clunky, cliché-ridden sentence sit there like that! What if I died the next day, and someone found my files, and thought that this was the best I can do? No, better make it perfect now. (You can see why it took me years to get anything finished.)
But this time around, I actually listened to Anne Lamott, and I let those awful sentences lie. And it was kind of freeing to know that this draft didn’t need to be very good—it just needed to get written.
This all leads us to #4…
4) Don’t look back. What I liked about handwriting was that it was pretty much the only way I could force myself to push forward with a draft, instead of looking back over what I’d just written and editing it. (The fact that I could barely read my own handwriting helped with this step—though it hindered things when it was finally time to transcribe that handwritten draft into the computer.) So I had to keep that aspect of things going even while switching to a typed first draft. No revising allowed as I drafted—just full steam ahead.
5) Hold yourself accountable. A big pro for typing the first draft was that now I’d easily be able to monitor my word count as I drafted—and I set myself the modest goal of writing 1,000 words a day.
6) Establish rewards. I bought a package of foil star stickers and busted out a freebie calendar. For every 1,000 words I wrote, I got a silver star for that day on the calendar. If I wrote 2,000 words, I got 2 stars—but if I only wrote 1,800 words, I only got one star. (That’ll motivate you to push on to 2,000!)
I also built rewards into my system for amassing a certain number of stars: 2 stars in one day unlocked an episode of TV; 10 stars let me buy a new book; 20 stars meant I could book a massage, etc. This really helped keep me going in the early weeks of drafting—though by the end, it was wanting to finish the draft that motivated me more than anything else.
7) Manage anxiety. I won’t pretend that everything I did turned drafting into an entirely anxiety-free process for me…but I will say that my anxiety was SO much less this time than any other time I’ve tried to write a book!
I chalk most of that up to having such a detailed outline, since not knowing where I’m going on a project—feeling like it’s a huge, out-of-control mess—is the kind of thing that makes me anxious, that in the past would convince me that I needed a several-month vacation from writing to keep myself from going nuts. But on this project, even when I strayed from my outline, I knew that I’d eventually come back to it and finish the story. It was like I wasn’t writing this book on my own, but had a collaborator who was keeping me organized and on track. That collaborator just happened to be past-me. 🙂
The freedom to truly let the first draft suck helped a lot, too.
The Bottom Line
So, in the end, how did it all work out?
Well, by the time my aunt came to town, the good news was that I had written 58,000 words—well past my initial goal of 50k!
The bad news was that the draft wasn’t finished yet.
That ended up taking a couple more weeks. But on September 11—after a marathon day in which I drafted over 5,000 words—I was able to write “The End” on my first draft of Gladys Gatsby #2.
The draft was 74,000 words long—50% longer than my first draft of All Four Stars, and drafted in approximately 4% of the time it took me to draft that book.
Yes, it’s way too long. Yes, even after all that outlining, the plot is messy. Yes, if I died tomorrow, and someone found that file on my computer, they’d know that my first drafts are full of clichés and melodrama and abrupt transitions and that I can’t spell the word “speech” (seriously, why on earth does “speak” have an “ea” but “speech” doesn’t??).
But I’m still calling it a success.